On Sundays, Yogi’s was America and the pool tables were embassies.
Atop the tables at the Indiana University sports bar were wooden boards to level the surface. Atop the boards, football fans draped their flags. Bears. Packers. Bengals. Browns. Vikings. Lions — all the teams closest to Bloomington, Indiana, with the exception of the hometown Colts, whom none of us could bear. Peyton Manning’s drawl and Marvin Harrison’s silent routes and Edgerrin James running and running until you wanted to be anywhere but the state of Indiana.
At Yogi’s, you felt like you were.
I didn’t drink until I was 22. I didn’t have a fake I.D. I didn’t enter a bar until I was 21. So when I went to one, there had to be something more than booze. Yogi’s had something more. A juke box with the Allman Brothers and the Pharcyde and Pearl Jam. Darts. Bar trivia. Photo hunt. Televisions. Chicken fingers. Pool tables. Cool folks.
I loved Yogi’s. It was the only bar in Bloomington where I felt like everyone was comfortable as themselves. No one was trying to score or front or hustle. We just wanted to have fun.
I started going there my junior year. When Week 1 of the 2003 season came around during my senior year, it just so happened that none of my friends were around for the Bears. So I went to Yogi’s, just to be around football fans, not knowing what I was walking into.
I showed up and saw fans of every Midwestern NFL team occupying its own table — its own pool table, as I soon learned. That’s when I saw the team flags draped over the tables. All fans wore jerseys. But the Bears table had another, smaller flag on a mini-flag pole posted on the table. That made us different. As did the singing. We belted out “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” not just after touchdowns, but at commercials. We had to drown out whatever nonsense the other fans were spouting. We sang and slapped the table and waved the flag and told the Packers table to eat it.
This was my new Bears home, and you can always go home again, as I learned the hard way on October 12, 14, and 15 of 2003. Do those dates stand out to you? This will help: Games 5, 6, and 7 of the NLCS between the Cubs and the Marlins. They were all losses, as you might recall.
Game 5 was a Sunday. That was a long day at Yogi’s. My parents were in town that weekend for the Indiana-Northwestern football game on Saturday, which our Cats won, and on Sunday the three of us went to Yogi’s for football at noon and baseball at 3. The 1-3 Bears were in New Orleans to face the 1-4 Saints. We lost 20-13. It was unpleasant. Our only touchdown was a 4th quarter pass from Kordell Stewart to Dez White.
Then came Game 5, a 4-0 loss to Josh Beckett and the Marlins. Two nights later I watched the Bartman game at Yogi’s. The next night I was there again and saw the Cubbies eliminated. Here is a three-part story I wrote about those three days — even 14 years later with a World Series championship, 2003 sucks to think about, let alone read about.
The point is, you’d think a week that bad would have been enough to knock Yogi’s out of my rotation. You’d think a fella wouldn’t want to watch any more Chicago sports there for the rest of his days. But as it turned out, Yogi’s felt better than the NLCS felt bad. It was still a home away from home for one reason — you could show up alone and leave with new friends.
That’s what I did. Every Sunday for the rest of that season, if I was on campus I was at Yogi’s. I had no expectation that those particular Bears would cure my ongoing Cubs depression.
Which is what made December 14 so special.
After starting 1-5, we were 5-8 and creeping toward the “on the bubble” portion of the playoff race. We were hosting the 8-5 Vikings. Rookie quarterback Rex Grossman was making his first start.
As you can imagine, Yogi’s was fired up. That was the case any time two of the Midwest teams played each other. We spent the afternoon locked in a death stare with the Vikings table. A gleeful death stare, since we went into the 4th quarter up 13-3.
But Paul Edinger missed a field goal, and Daunte Culpepper took Minny down the field on seven plays, capped off with a 16-yard TD to Randy Moss. We traded three-and-outs, and then punted with five minutes left.
Now we were holding on for dear life. At the time, nothing was more terrifying in the NFC North than Daunte-to-Randy. Frankly, I don’t think any QB-WR combination was more terrifying in the league that year. In 14 games, Culepper passed for just under 3,500 yards with 25 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and a 96.4 QB rating. In 16 games, Moss set career highs in receptions (111) and receiving yards (1,632), and tied his career high in receiving touchdowns with 17. He was an All Pro and Daunte was a Pro Bowler and they were driving and we were scared.
Like Grossman, Peanut Tillman was a rookie. He had the job of defending Moss that afternoon, and it was a tough one: Moss caught nine of 12 passes thrown his way for 93 yards. Thirty-three of them came on two catches on that final drive, and a pass to Moe Williams for 37 yards put Minnesota at the 8-yard-line.
Yogi’s was buzzing. The Bears table was nearly hyperventilating. The Vikings table was screaming. The other tables were eyeing us, awaiting blood. On 1st and goal from the 8, Mike Brown stuffed Moe Williams for a loss of two.
That brought up 2nd and goal from the 10 and one play that no Bears fan who watched it will ever forget.
Randy Moss — meet Charles Tillman.
Culpepper had the matchup he wanted: his All-Pro receiver in single coverage against the 2nd round rookie. The ball was there. Moss seemed to have position. Tillman simply snatched it away, sealing the win with just over a minute remaining.
It was such an improbable interception that a photo of the two men going for the ball ended up on a football card... for Randy Moss:
The crowd at Yogi’s almost couldn’t believe what we’d seen. The sight did not compute. I remember this low groan as we thought Moss was about to score, and then gasps, and then yelps when we saw Peanut with the football, and then cheers, and then pointing and gloating at the Vikings table, and then we ran out the clock with Anthony Thomas, and Rex kneeled the ball to end the game, and we high-fived each other and waved our flag, and we sang “Bear Down” and jumped for joy and marched out of Yogi’s the champions of the world.